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What an odd card. UFC on ESPN 5 this Saturday was initially slated to take place in Russia before being moved to Newark, New Jersey, on late notice. There are a few vestiges of the original plans still hanging around, the most obvious being the early-afternoon timeslot on ESPN. However, there is also a distinct European flavor to some of the talent on the undercard. Sometimes the Ultimate Fighting Championship does its best work on late notice, throwing together entertaining fights without much thought, but that is not the case in this instance. A co-main event between Clay Guida and Jim Miller is a long overdue fight and Nasrat Haqparast is a blue-chip prospect, but there is not much else that provides any particular intrigue beyond the excellent Colby Covington-Robbie Lawler headliner. At least UFC 241 is coming soon.
Now to the preview for UFC on ESPN 5:
WelterweightsColby Covington (14-1) vs. Robbie Lawler (28-13)
ODDS: Covington (-235), Lawler (+195)
Covington is probably getting a raw deal by having to take this fight, but somehow, it is difficult to be all that sympathetic. Covington was a blue-chip prospect as soon as he was signed, owing to a successful wrestling career at Oregon State, and he was also the rare instance of the UFC bringing along a raw talent slowly. Covington was fed opponent after opponent who had little answer for his relentless wrestling game, and save for a 2015 bout in which Warlley Alves managed to jump on a quick guillotine choke, “Chaos” found himself posting a dominant win every time out. A 2017 victory over Dong Hyun Kim marked Covington as a contender, but it was his next victory over Demian Maia in which he truly turned the corner, for better or for worse. Inside the cage, Covington provided some answers for how he could handle an opponent who could neutralize his greatest strengths. He kept up his ridiculous pace, only this time, he overwhelmed Maia with a high-volume, low-power pressure striking style that eventually tired out the grappling specialist. After the fight, Covington made headlines, calling the Brazilian crowd “filthy animals” before being escorted to the backstage area. It started out cartoonish enough, but with time, Covington’s constant flood of uncreative trash talk became tiresome enough that one wishes for the halcyon days of anyone else. Covington followed the Maia victory with an interim title win over Rafael dos Anjos, but despite his seeming status as the UFC’s favored son, a unification bout never materialized. Covington underwent sinus surgery, and with the UFC needing title fights to fill out cards, the call was made to strip Covington of his belt and give Darren Till the next shot at Tyron Woodley rather than wait for their interim champion. Since then, Covington has been content to wait on the sidelines for the shot that he earned. In the meantime, Kamaru Usman dethroned Woodley, and Covington cohort Jorge Masvidal may have stolen the next shot with his flying knee knockout of Ben Askren. Whatever the reason, Covington has decided to step back into the cage and put himself back in the mix, though the UFC has not done him any favors, as Lawler figures to be a tough opponent who poses a difficult style matchup.
Lawler has been back among the welterweight elite for so long that it is worth revisiting just how unlikely his feel-good comeback has been. After the UFC absorbed Strikeforce, Lawler’s 2013 return to the Octagon after eight and a half years seemed like little more than a novelty. What had turned into a relatively successful post-UFC run had culminated into a series of flat performances, most of them losses, in Strikeforce. However, Lawler obliterated Josh Koscheck in his return fight and has not looked back since. By the end of the year, Lawler had beaten Rory MacDonald to mark himself as a top contender and move into position to challenge Johny Hendricks for the newly vacated welterweight belt. Lawler lost that fight but quickly earned a rematch, and upon finally earning welterweight gold, he enjoyed one of the greatest championship reigns in UFC history from an entertainment standpoint, as his title defenses against MacDonald and Carlos Condit rank among the greatest fights of all-time. Woodley quickly put an end to his reign, however, and the ensuing three years have seen a slow decline from “Ruthless Robbie.” While Lawler managed to bounce back with a win over Donald Cerrone, he was outhustled and worn out a bit in a five-round decision loss against dos Anjos. After taking off all of 2018, Lawler returned with a loss to Askren via an early referee stoppage. With that result not hurting his position much, a win here could have Lawler right back in the title picture.
The risk here for Covington is high, as his strengths and weaknesses line up with Lawler enough to make this an absolute corker of a fight. The main issue is that Covington’s striking defense is absolutely terrible; an exhausted Maia still managed to land at will on the former interim champion, and the situation did not look much improved once Covington fought dos Anjos. To his credit, Covington’s durability thus far has meant that it simply does not matter what his opponent lands. With that said, if Lawler can stop his persistent wrestling and clinch game, he has outlasted much more unbreakable fighters than Covington in the past. Covington’s aggressive style is the rub. While Lawler has consistently shown strong takedown defense, Covington is all too willing to just hold onto his opponents and grind against the fence in order to wear them down. This should be a battle at the start, as a fresh Lawler who can keep Covington at bay is going to present a ton of problems and cause a ton of damage. However, as Lawler’s fight against dos Anjos showed, if an opponent is willing to just keep surviving and pressuring him against the fence, he can eventually be worn out and shut down to an increasingly greater margin. In fact, this fight could look a lot like each man’s respective bout against dos Anjos. Past a certain point, Lawler was not able to keep pace with the Brazilian, while Covington used his own pace to wade through damage and earn a decision victory. The margins are thinner for Covington this time out, if only because Lawler is much more capable of pouring on the damage than any of his previous opponents. Nevertheless, Covington by decision is the pick.
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